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Tensions linger over Gold Hill public works chief

GOLD HILL — The City Council tried to put an end to a year of complaints regarding Public Works Director Royal Gasso in an hourlong sit-down following Monday's council meeting.

The mediation was between Gasso and Councilman Robert Ashton, who, along with Councilwoman Judi Holdeman (absent on Monday) has repeatedly called for Gasso's termination.

Time will tell if the meeting had any effect, but Ashton and Holdeman still appeared frustrated with Gasso's continued employment.

Though the council originally scheduled the matter for closed session — common with personnel issues — Gasso requested an open hearing.

Ashton and Holdeman's allegations, presented to the council in December, ranged from accusations that Gasso's license had been suspended without city knowledge to Gasso lying "about everything."

The most recent issue was a complaint lodged with the Oregon Government Standards and Practices Commission by Kathleen Price, a former councilwoman ousted in a recent recall election.

The state determined Gasso had violated state rules in his use of a city vehicle, but added the city's vehicle policy conflicts with the state's in allowing personal use of city vehicles.

Gasso got final word on the charges Monday and plans to agree to a reduced $400 fine, but he wants the city to pay it since his use of the vehicle complied with city policy.

In addition, Gasso provided evidence challenging Ashton and Holdeman's complaints and urged the council to order the two to stop what he called ongoing harassment, including being followed by the two several times and having personal records accessed.

Council President Gus Wolf said the council has found no merit in Ashton's concerns and hoped the meeting would allow the city to "finally move forward."

Councilwoman Jan Fish was bothered by the conflict, noting, "I just don't want to keep revisiting this "¦ . We've certainly spent a year on the topic of Royal Gasso."

Contacted Tuesday by the Mail Tribune, Holdeman said she missed Monday's meeting because she "had nothing to say."

"They support him 100 percent, no matter what he does," she said. "What can I do? I wish I knew."

Gasso surmised that Ashton and Holdeman had attempted to "build a case" against him because of his history with former embattled Police Chief Dean Muchow, whose troubled department was shuttered when the city's insurer threatened to pull liability coverage over concerns about the city's ability to properly manage police services. The issue has polarized the town and council.

The recent opposition to Gasso by Muchow supporters on the council mirrors opposition to the embattled police chief over the last two years.

"They were after me from the moment they took office," Gasso said. "In January, they attempted to rescind my contract and they hadn't even met me."

Gasso said the city can dismiss him and pay his severance agreement — 75 percent of his $57,000 salary if he's terminated without cause — rather than "submitting false information to government agencies and harassing the living hell out of me with the goal of trying to fire me for cause."

Councilman Mike Ely, who attempted to mediate between Ashton and Gasso on Monday, said Tuesday he hoped things would settle down for the city.

"I'd like to think that we managed to air everything out and bring things to closure" Ely said.

Ashton voiced disappointment Tuesday, stating, "They're not going to do anything about all that he's done. I have no vote to be able to change anybody's opinions. It's polarized."

On Monday, Wolf urged Ashton to move on.

"I think we're all fought out. If you keep your pattern of behavior, my position is that Royal is a lot more valuable to me as a public works director than your council seat," he said.

Contacted later for clarification on that statement, Wolf said he couldn't do anything directly against Ashton, but he suggested Gasso could sue the councilman or voters could start a recall campaign against Ashton, "which are always possibilities when someone is so far out of line."

Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. E-mail her at buffypollock@juno.com.